Rewilding Technology: 3 Ways Tech Can Help Communities Thrive
What does it mean to "rewild" technology in the age of quick fixes?
In David Attenborough's 2020 film, A Life on Our Planet, Attenborough speaks of the importance of biodiversity on our planet and that “rewilding” our planet—rebuilding habitat—is key to fighting climate change. By rebuilding habitat, we create space for life to thrive.
In the film, Attenborough tells us about Palau, a Pacific Island nation that relies on its coral reefs for fish and tourism. When fishing stocks began to decline, the Palauans responded by restricting and banning fishing from many areas.
The no-fishing zones worked so well that healthy populations of fish spilled over into the fishing zones, leading to increased catches for the local fishermen. The reef, where the fish thrive, began to rewild.
I’ve been a hobbyist urban farmer for nearly a decade. Over these years I've picked up a lot of learnings that once understood, lead to small adjustments. Over time, these adjustments make a huge difference for the habitat I'm creating for plants and pollinators to thrive. Learning where the sun is at certain times of the day and year allows me to better plan for what goes where and when to plant it. Learning how, by making space in my garden for flowers that feed local pollinators, I've significantly increased the yield of vegetables I get from my plants.
Humans are great at creating things, but we’re not always great at creating things that lead to life thriving.
We're frequently looking for quick fixes. And often we’re building technology solutions to get more clicks, eyeballs, and revenue instead of measuring success for how the technology helps communities thrive.
If “rewilding” means building back habitat for life to thrive, I propose that “rewilding technology” could mean focusing more on digital product metrics that help humans thrive when using it or as a result of using it. I think about this in three layers:
User Facing: How people directly experience the software
At Exygy, we focus on designing and building software that helps reduce the tech-equity gap caused by outdated software and/or poor design decisions that have led to inequitable experiences for users. Small things such as: testing for well-formatted front end code and color contrast with tools like WAVE, making sure your website or app works well on mobile devices and providing well structured, findable content on your website (See Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)), all go a long way toward helping to make technology more equitable. Designing and building technology that is accessible to all is a great way for designers and developers to contribute to global awareness of creating a technology habitat that helps humans thrive all over our planet.
WAVE Accessibility Tool
By using a free WAVE accessibility browser extension, we’re able to quickly scan the San Francisco Housing Portal - DAHLIA ( https://housing.sfgov.org/ ) for common accessibility issues, such as poorly formatted front end code and color contrast which can make websites hard for folks with vision impairments to navigate the website. In this example we can see where color contrast might be a problem when we have white text on a dark blue background, and dark blue text on a light blue background.
Organizational: How the organization supports, maintains, and potentially grows the technology
On an organizational level, we look more at the cost and skills needed to support, maintain, and, depending on the product, grow it to reach a larger audience. When recommending technology for organizations, we don't simply recommend what we're comfortable doing. When working with civic and educational websites like the San Francisco Human Services Agency and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) websites, we think about technology solutions that the organizations will have to use and support for five to ten-plus years. What is the cost of hiring software engineers to support the technology? Are there off-the-shelf solutions that, though maybe an upfront fee, might be less expensive for the organization to support in the long run?
Evaluating an Organization's Tech Needs
When we began working with SFUSD, their website was hosted on a very old content management system that was not mobile friendly and difficult for them to securely support. We evaluated multiple open source solutions including WordPress and Drupal 8 for them as well as a couple off-the-shelf ed-tech solutions such as Blackboard. We prioritized evaluation criteria that were unique to the SFUSD organizational needs such as ease of content editing and cost of supporting the technology.
Externalities: The impact technology has on other, non-direct users of the software and the planet
Externalities are all the other factors that can be easily overlooked, but are things people are taking note of more and more. Established diversity and inclusion practices, sustainability, and kicking our fossil fuel habit are beginning to be requirements for doing business. Where are the web servers hosted and what is the host policy towards using renewable energy? Did the use of this technology by one community of people impact other communities in a positive or negative way?
We’ve always loved Pantheon. They’ve been a super reliable, and secure website hosting solution for many of our websites over the years. But not only do they provide great service for our clients, they also have clearly stated goals, benchmarks, and planning around Diversity and Inclusion. Working with partners such as Pantheon that are not just providing a great service, but also making measurable positive impact both keeps us true to the commitment we make to our clients, while also challenging us to do better ourselves.
Technology has a long way to go until we’re truly free from the human and planet damaging practices we have that are leftover from industrialization. But small changes over a long period of time begin to exponentially build healthier technology habitats. Slowly and surely we can rewild technology so that lasting habitat is built instead of consumption-based technology that leaves us craving the next quick fix.
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